According to the diary of a medieval traveler, Pero (Pedro) Tafur, there was a gate in ancient Rome – the Tarpeian Gate - that represented sanctuary for fugitives. When Constantine built the Basilica of St. John Lateran on the site, he encouraged Pope Sylvester to offer forgiveness of sins for those who passed through the gate. The practice became so popular (or abused) that Pope Sylvester decided to close it up with the idea that every fifty years it would be opened during a special year of mercy.
If there was such a gate in ancient Rome, it would not have been near the site of the present basilica of St. John Lateran. But the story that Pero Tafur tells must have been a popular enough that in 1423 Pope Martin V opened a closed door for a jubilee year. The practice was significantly enhanced with the popular jubilee year of 1500 when jubilee doors were created in the major basilicas of Rome – including St. Peter’s. After each jubilee year, the doors are sealed closed.
During past jubilee years, special indulgences were offered for those who made a pilgrimage to Rome and passed through the jubilee door to visit the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul. The theme of mercy was ever present. Pope Francis has raised the profile of this tradition less with the offer of indulgences and more with the idea that the Church must embody mercy – since God is merciful.
The opening of the Jubilee door expresses the idea that the Church offers welcome, sanctuary and mercy. The Church throws open its doors to those who are refugees – those who are oppressed, persecuted, burdened by debt or weighed down by sin. The Jubilee Door is a way of emphasizing that Jesus is the door or portal to God – not through judgment and condemnation but through compassion and mercy.
Pilgrims will be traveling to Rome this year to celebrate and explore the history of the Christian practice of mercy. Throughout Italy, there are wonderful destinations that emphasize this theme – from early Christian house churches and centers of charity (diaconie) in Rome to homes of visionary men and women who embodied mercy – such as St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Benedict and St. Scholastica – and many others. Contact us for travel opportunities and resources for organizing a pilgrimage for your congregation, organization or community.